Following the statement, read threat, by the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh that Beijing-Dhaka ties would be substantially damaged if Bangladesh joins Quad, Dhaka has reacted appropriately. Bangladesh’s reply should be seen as reflective of the mood of countries in the region that are tormented by the coronavirus, which is likely to have originated in Wuhan. Seshadri Chari specially for ThePrint.
While expressions like “Beijing-Dhaka ties would be substantially damaged” are not veiled, they do seem like direct threats. Dhaka’s polite but firm reply that Bangladesh stands by its commitment to no-alignment and balanced foreign policy is a tight slap on the face of China. In sharp contrast to Dhaka, Colombo seems to be lacking the courage to balance its relations in the region.
The Sri Lankan parliament is all set to debate the controversial Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill, which seeks to protect China’s interests, and is being criticised for ceding control over Colombo Port City. A delegation of senior Chinese military officials, led by Defence Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe, made a two-day visit to Sri Lanka in April to consolidate the defence partnership between the two countries. Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage had earlier said: “We are observing the rise of Quad as an exclusive military alliance. That is the problem. If Quad is aiming at economic revival, there are no issues”. For the record, neither Bangladesh nor Sri Lanka has been invited to join the Quad.
The Beijing-Dhaka verbal duel highlights two important aspects that should be a matter of concern to India in particular and the Quad and countries in the Indo-Pacific region in general. One is the pace and flagrantly audacious manner in which China is making forays into the Indo-Pacific and other Asian capitals. The other aspect involves attempts by the Quad countries, overt and covert, to checkmate China.
China’s discomfort and antagonism towards the emergence of Quad have never been a secret. Besides terming the Quad as a “military alliance aimed against China’s resurgence and its relationship with neighbouring countries”, Beijing views the Quad as the biggest stumbling block to its hegemonic objectives in the region. Not content with ridiculing Quad as “Asian NATO”, China has set in motion a series of tactics to inch closer to its strategy of stamping Asia and Indo-Pacific with its neo-colonial footprints.
When it comes to dealing with countries in Asia, Beijing does not seem to need a diplomatic veneer anymore. New Delhi experienced China’s aggressive forays in eastern Ladakh — turning the area into a new flashpoint at a time when India along with the rest of the world was grappling with the killer pandemic. A quick look at the events that unfolded during the initial phase of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent halt of the global economy due to lockdowns will reveal a pattern. It is not a mere coincidence that all the flashpoints where China is involved are dots that link countries in Asia and Indo-Pacific region and which Beijing wants to bring under its inextricable political and economic influence.
Even as the violent conflict in Galwan was at its peak, China was flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, making newer claims over territories and tightening its stranglehold over Hong Kong. This was followed by navy drills in the Taiwan Strait, clearly aimed at intimidating Taiwan and its supporters, and bullying Australia with economic boycott by putting on hold trade deals and cutting off supply chains.
Another aspect of Beijing’s aggressive forays in Asia concerns transforming economic engagements into political and military arrangements. China has bagged contracts worth $4.4 billion in Afghanistan for developing the Mes Aynak copper fields in Logar province, besides oil exploration in the Amu Darya basin in the northern region of the country and railway development. China has launched the Sino-Afghanistan Special Railway Transportation Project that is being developed as ‘Five Nations’ railway project and will connect China, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Baluchistan, and terminate at the Gwadar Port. These economic engagements have brought Beijing and Kabul closer even as the US is scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan.
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Need a pan-Asian consolidation
Beijing’s aggressiveness in Asia, Indo-Pacific and India’s extended neighbourhood should have been dealt with by forging a rules-based regional order through a pan-Asian consolidation. This would have bolstered the morale of all those nations which were helplessly watching their economic sovereignty being pawned to a hegemonic power with insatiable appetite for global resources, least respect for global commons and nothing but contempt for human rights and democracy.
China’s ultimate objective of dominating the global market, supply chain systems, demand-supply mechanisms and trade institutions through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — stretching from Pacific to the Indian Ocean, Australia to Africa and the Far East to Europe — is posing a challenge to the existing world order that has withstood all pressures and pulls since the fall of the Third Reich.
The 2+2 ministerial dialogue at the foreign and defence ministerial levels between India and Russia should be able to take the bilateral partnership to the next level, especially at a time when India’s role in the region, in general, and Afghanistan, in particular, has to be scaled up. (India has a similar arrangement with the US, Japan and Australia, all members of the Quad).
Twenty-one years after the first India-EU summit (held in 2000), both sides have agreed to establish a mechanism to promote a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-pacific architecture and strengthen the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) forum. New Delhi will have to assess whether these action plans will tame the dragon or provoke it to be more belligerent in future.
Seshadri Chari is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal. Edited by Anurag Chaubey